Book Review: Shoal of Time

Reviews

shoal of time cover

Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders occupy an awkward space in the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) coalition. Many groups call themselves API, but the PI is often absent. In some cases, it doesn’t appear that PIs were ever present to begin with. With this in mind, I undertook a project of reading everything I could get my hands on about Hawaii as a first step in building my knowledge of the PI in the API and toward grappling with my own history. This book, one that I first read many years ago, was the first in the series.

Shoal of Time is widely considered to be the definitive text when it comes to the modern history of Hawai’i. Certainly, no other text attempts to take on such a broad swathe of history in such detail. If you’re interested in the history of Hawai’i and/or the imperialist history of the U.S. in the Pacific, Shoal of Time is a must read. However, beware, I found that the book has some pretty big flaws.

First of all, every historical account can only be told from the perspective of the historian who tells it, and this historian is definitely one who has an “all’s well that ends well” point of view about the colonization of Hawai’i and all that was lost in the process. In addition there are some historical inaccuracies and exclusions that make a real difference to one’s understanding of just what, exactly, happened here.

On the second point, Daws gives short shrift to what many refer to as the “Great Dying,” the historical sweep of 80 or so years during which more than 95% of the Hawaiian people died, due largely to contracting diseases brought to Hawai’i by it’s colonizers and to which most Hawaiians had no immunity. This catastrophe could not but have shaped the worldview of the Hawaiian people, including Hawaiian religion and religious leaders, opening the doors to many significant changes in Hawaiian culture that are presented as though they were easily chosen by Hawaiians. For instance, when everyone around you is dying, you might think your gods were failing you, making the notion of trying on a new god or two kind of appealing, especially when the missionaries bringing you the word of said god are taking advantage of the situation and suggesting that you are all dying of sin.

Also on this point, Daws at one juncture suggests that plantation life in Hawai’i was similar to that of the antebellum southeastern U.S. but for, though not in so many words, the slavery and threats to white women by black men causing unrest and acts of retaliation like lynchings. I accept that slavery is different than peonage, which is more along the lines of what immigrant workers experienced in Hawai’i, but the notion that lynchings in the south were acts of retaliation is just b.s. The whole notion of the sexually depraved black man is a myth created by white men in the south in order to justify acts of violence that were really committed in order to intimidate slaves and prevent them from rebelling (not to mention subsequent generations of African Americans in order to quell challenges to white supremacy). I’d call that a pretty big gaff, and one that reveals a lot about the Daws point of view on issues of race. That point of view comes across now and then throughout, though I believe unintentionally.

But, again, all in all, no other book goes as far, nor into as much detail, at least where English language resources are concerned, as this one. For a history of Hawai’i that delves into Hawaiian language resources which tell a very different story, check out Aloha Betrayed by Noenoe Silva.

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